A year ago, a group from my church was preparing to welcome a refugee family to the United States. They hadn’t even arrived yet, and already it had been eventful, from the first family we were assigned suddenly being unable to come, to the family we ended up connecting with having their flight from New York cancelled last-minute.
But finally, they arrived. Our first meeting at the airport was full of joy, tenderness, and mutual incomprehension, the latter mitigated somewhat by the presence of an able translator. The 5 children were pretty much silent, barely more than whispering their names in response to introductions and then sitting quietly in the church bus on the drive back to their new home.
The family has come a long way, from knowing no English to being able to engage in actual conversation (especially the kids); from being stunned by the welcoming setup of their new house to making it their home; from being buried under piles of paperwork and an onslaught of initial appointments with doctors and social services to finding a daily routine that includes work, play, and school.
Obviously, they’ve learned a lot in their time here. But our team and I have learned just as much, if not more, from a different perspective. We’ve had to learn how to navigate our complex social services system; how to decipher bus schedules and problem-solve transportation without a car; what to do to get kids with no formal education assimilated into public schools; where to get diapers and clothes and food and cell phones when you don’t have much disposable income.
But the biggest thing, and probably the most difficult to navigate, has been the broader underlying question of how to do all of this with the family and not just for them.
Some of the challenge has been practical—when you’re up against deadlines for applying for Medicaid, getting IDs, and whatnot, you don’t always have time to figure out how to communicate what’s going on in Swahili. Often, we’ve found the immediate needs of the family have had to trump our desire to empower them, at least temporarily.
Some of the challenge has been personal—our team members have come to love this family, and they want to help them however they can. This has been beautiful to watch, but we’ve all had times where we wondered whether we were really helping or actually hurting, however good our intentions. We’ve wrestled with how to let the family fail in ways that will help them learn and take responsibility; how to give them the dignity of choice even when we’re not sure they’ll make what we might think is the best choice; and how to respect their goals and definition of leading a successful life, even when that differs from our hopes and dreams for them.
This has happened with the question of mowing the lawn—something our team members generously did for a while before realizing they ought to teach the dad how to use the lawnmower. It’s come up in relation to grocery shopping—whether to give them rides to the store so they don’t have to schlep groceries on the bus, and whether to give our input on what foods to buy once they’re at the store. It’s been discussed in the myriad ways our team has leveraged their time and resources to support the family through access to tutoring, camps, and swim lessons for the kids, and employment, education, and services for the parents.
We connected with this family through World Relief, a faith-based nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to resettle refugees who have been through the grueling process of applying and being screened for refugee status. We are called a Good Neighbor Team, and we’ve tried to live into that term “neighbor.” What does it mean to be a neighbor to a family navigating a new society, learning a new language, and building a new life? How do we walk alongside them without dragging them along? How do we make space for them to fall back and move forward on their own without simply abandoning them?
We’ve found some answers to these questions along the way, but mostly we’ve learned to give ourselves and the family lots of love and grace, and to remember that God gives us much more of both, doing for us what we can’t do for ourselves and with us what we are empowered to do in partnership with one another and with God.